The Mazda CX-7 is sporty and svelte yet functional, roomy, and comfortable. Designed to compete with the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV-4, the CX-7 is a sporty five-passenger vehicle that will haul nearly as much stuff as it does people. It features a powerful yet frugal turbocharged four-cylinder engine with a six-speed automatic transmission.
The Mazda CX-7 offers seating for five, decent cargo space, a comprehensive set of safety features and distinctive looks. We found it fun to drive, with responsive handling and good high-speed stability. Though pricier than the prime opposition, the CX-7 excels in ride and handling.
Mazda introduced the CX-7 for 2007 as a totally new crossover utility vehicle to compete against the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, among others. Crossovers, as they're called, have become the hottest segment in the auto industry. They combine the high seating position and cargo capacity of a truck-based sport utility vehicle with the agility, smoothness and fuel economy of a car. And they avoid the image of a minivan or station wagon.
For 2009, Mazda CX-7 gets an upgraded list of standard features. All models are now MP3-capable, and come with an auxiliary audio input jack. Base-level Sport models add leather wrappings for the steering wheel and shift knob. The premium Grand Touring adds a standard auto-dimming rearview mirror with Homelink, and turn signals are now integrated into the exterior mirror housings. Some option packages have been beefed up for 2009, some interior storage systems upgraded, and air conditioning improved.
The Mazda CX-7 sports the current Mazda styling theme.
The fenders are seemingly transplanted directly to the CX-7 from the Mazda RX-8 sports car. To fit those bulbous wheel housings to a sedan-like body required pinching the nose and squeezing headlights into the tops of the fenders. This leaves substantial mass below the bumper line that's only slightly lightened by a massive mouth braced by large intake-like recesses that double as housings for the optional fog lamps. A set of bright streaks added behind the fog lamps for 2009 break this mass up a bit. The way the CX-7's bulk is suspended across its exceptionally wide track (distance between the tires side to side) leaves it looking almost as if it's drooping, or sagging, from the weight.
The side view appeals more, with wheels pushed to the corners and a super-fast windshield sweeping back over tautly drawn side glass. Side mirrors separate the front door glass from an odd-looking, wind-wing-like, but fixed, tiny piece of glass at the base of the A-pillar. The beltline rises as it moves rearward, peaking just aft of the severely blistered rear wheelwell before tucking in between the steeply sloped backlight and the sculpted back end. Full-round, easy-to-grab door handles ride the crest of a soft bulge connecting the tops of the fenders. An understated crease highlights the lower door panels, skipping over the rear tires to continue around the bottom fold of the rear bumper.
The rear aspect is plain, with a modest spoiler sitting atop the backlight, itself resting in a gentle dip in the liftgate. A large, seamless bumper stretches the width of the back end, above a widespread pair of exhaust tips.
The interior of the Mazda CX-7 makes no less of a statement than the exterior, and with much the same result. Some design features seem to work, others not so well. Overall, the CX-7 cabin doesn't seem as friendly and as functional as its primary competition, the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4. Where other car makers are trending toward simplicity and sleekness, the CX-7 has gone chunky and choppy.
The dash is a prime example. Some parts look right, while others come across almost as an exercise in Design 101, and not much of it looks of a piece with the rest. For starters there's what Mazda calls the double-roof instrument panel. Translated, this constitutes, first, a ridge stretching across the top of the dash that's supposed to make the front seat passenger feel included in the interior's dynamic. Below this floating lip is the second part, a more traditional dash construct comprising three elements: the instrument cluster, the center stack and the section holding the passenger airbag and housing the glove box. This lower part, the designers say, is intended to play to the driver, concentrating on the interfaces necessary for managing the car. All the pieces for this are there, so the job is doable, but the way everything is put together doesn't make it all that easy or appear that seamlessly integrated.
Beyond the quirky design, the instrument cluster is deeply hooded, stylishly compartmentalized and softly lit to the point where it's not a quick and easy scan. The steering wheel, borrowed directly from the sporty MX-5 Miata with its much more confined cockpit, feels undersized in the more expansive interior of the CX-7.
Large buttons and knobs populate the stack of air conditioning and sound system controls in the center, but their arrangement and assigned functions are far from intuitive.
The navigation system adds complexity, as it incorporates many of those functions into one of the menus accessed only through the touch-screen LCD and, for example, allows switching preset radio stations by exchanging the map display for the audio display.
In interior accommodations, the Mazda splits the difference between the Honda and Toyota in front-seat legroom, rear-seat headroom, and in hip room, front and rear. The Mazda finishes last in front-seat headroom and rear-seat legroom, the latter a true dead last by a substantial two inches.
Seat comfort is average at best. The seat-bottom cushions offer slightly more thigh support than economy class airline seats, which is to say more would be better. Substantial front-seat side bolsters are fitting for a vehicle with sporty aspirations. And the nicely padded, front seat center armrest sits about the same height as the front door armrests, promising comfortable postures for long drives.
The rear seats favor two passengers over three, an impression reinforced by the decently contoured seatback and the absence of a head restraint for the center seating position. The CX-7's competitiveness in rear-seat headroom is no doubt facilitated by the shallowness of the rear seat bottom cushion and by the closeness of that cushion to the floor. We sat in the back seat and didn't like the proximity of knees to chin.
Visibility is best out the front. The kicked-up beltline and tapered cabin constrict vision toward the rear. Even with the driver's seat at its highest adjustment, however, the hood drops away so severely it's below the sight line of a six-footer. This demands cautious navigation of parking lots and tight spaces. The rearview video camera (part of the optional Technology Package) helps the driver spot objects behind the vehicle when backing up, including short metal posts, other cars and children on tricycles.
Storage is adequate. The front center console's lockable bin is deep enough for a laptop computer and includes a secondary power point for that purpose. The glove box holds more than gloves, but not much more; at least it finally comes with a lock as well. Fixed, hard-plastic, front door map pockets are shaped to hold a pop can or small water bottle, too. Rear seat passengers get no map pockets, but magazine pouches are provided on the backs of both front seats. Two cup holders fill the space in the front center console between the shift gate and the storage bin. The fold-down center armrest in the rear seat also provides two cup holders. Illuminated vanity mirrors are located in the sun visors.
Air conditioning performance has been improved on the 2009 models, says Mazda.
Both the CR-V and RAV4 hold more cargo than the CX-7 with the rear seat either up or down. With it up, the CR-V can handle about six more foot-square boxes, the RAV4 about seven more; down, both can hold more than 14 additional boxes that the CX-7 would have to leave behind.
A few more distinctions: Alone among the three, the RAV4 can be ordered with a third-row seat, giving it accommodations (however meager) for seven passengers. The CX-7, on the other hand, is the longest, lowest, and widest of the three; which gives it the dubious distinction of providing the least interior space for the most exterior bulk. However, the CX-7 has the best aerodynamic performance of the group.
The Mazda CX-7 is fun to drive, especially when compared with the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, and other compact crossover SUVs.
We found it stable at high speeds. The brake pedal returns a solid, firm feel, and the vented disc brakes deliver reassuring, controlled stops when called upon. Driven fast on winding, two-lane roads, the CX-7 tracks cleanly, with minimal body lean despite its somewhat upright stature. Yes, its design default mode when carrying too much speed into a corner is understeer (where it wants to go straight instead of turn), but the electronic stability control system shields all but the most lead-footed driver from ever experiencing this. There is some head toss in quick left-right-left transitions, not a lot, but it's notable.
The steering wheel, brake and accelerator pedals and shift lever are properly juxtaposed for spirited driving, or at least as spirited as is comfortable in the CX-7. In support of which, Mazda points out that the wheel/shifter geometric replicates that of the RX-8 sports car. Over rough pavement, the suspension tends more to stiff than firm, with a hint of harshness. This no doubt contributes to the disappointing amount of road noise the tires transmit into the cabin, which otherwise was fairly quiet, even over poorly graded railroad crossings.
Power from the turbocharged four-cylinder engine builds smoothly, with impressive torque at low engine speeds. It's worth noting here that the CX-7 develops more torque at significantly lower engine speed (258 pound-feet at 2500 rpm) than the Toyota RAV4 V6 (246 pound-feet at 4700 rpm) or Honda CR-V (161 pound-feet at 4200 rpm). That's worth noting because it's torque, not horsepower, that propels you from intersections and up steep hills. More torque sooner is always better.
However, the CX-7 pays a price with the poorest EPA fuel economy estimates of the group.
Underway, the mechanical tones from the Mazda's engine compartment are decidedly low-key, more buzzy than throaty.
The transmission shifts well and adapts well to different driving situations, quickly learning a driver's preferences and holding lower gears longer and adjusting shift points to match. That's in Drive. Shift into the Sport mode and it executes manually directed shifts smoothly, up or down. To change gears manually, slide the shifter into the Sport slot, which is conveniently placed on the driver's side of the primary shift gate. Then simply push the lever forward to downshift, pull it back to shift up. This is similar to the way it works on many race cars.
There's some torque steer (where the front tires pull one way or the other, most commonly to the right) under hard acceleration, and we've noticed it in both the front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive models. It's somewhat less in the latter, which redirects up to 50 percent of the power to the rear wheels in extreme conditions.
The Mazda CX-7 is a competent crossover utility vehicle when measured against the competition. It's not the roomiest in the class, trading some interior space for sporty styling. The sporty looks are backed up by sporty handling characteristics. The CX-7 has a remarkably energetic engine and an equally accommodating transmission, and it's available with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. That easily makes it worth a look.
Tom Lankard filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drive the CX-7 in Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C.